By T. Leigh Buehler-Rappold
Assistant Professor, Retail Management, American Public University
Numerous resources exist to help students of all academic levels learn to read books and texts more critically. The beautiful “How to Read a Book, The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren sits heavy on my bookshelf filled with notes, markings, and Post-Its of my thoughts and insights.
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If there is one thing the book taught me, and was drilled home by my favorite professors, is that when you read, you should have a conversation with the author. Whether it’s a book on history or a novel by E.M. Forster, making notes or underlining quotes is a way to help your brain dive deeper into the content.
How to Take Marginal Notes when Your Reading Material Is Online
Making notes and adding comments in the margins is well and good when you have a physical copy in hand. But how do you guide students to read critically, take notes and have a conversation with the author when all their reading material is online?
Schools and colleges, including APU, are viewing Open Educational Resources (OERs) as a way to help save students money and cut costs of higher education. Without going into a dialogue on the good and bad of OERs, we will focus on several steps that will help students read online material critically and successfully.
- Adler’s advice can still apply to online sources, whether a journal article or a book chapter. Many professors will have you jump straight to the reading selection, without directing the students to read over the front matter of the e-text. When dealing with an article or chapter selection, do not start reading right away. First, skim through the selection. Observe the headers and topic sections. Get an idea of what will be covered in your reading. Spend around five minutes just lightly skimming the reading. This will activate your brain and better prepare it for the upcoming content.
- Now read the abstracts or summary statements of the opening and closing paragraphs carefully. These are typically pivotal points of the argument.
- Read the selection. Follow Adler’s rule, “In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.” In other words, don’t stop reading when a passage becomes confusing, just keep reading. When you get to a section you DO understand, concentrate on that.
- Now go back to the beginning and take out a notebook (or a Word document if you prefer). Write the article/chapter title at the top and the author’s name for quick reference. Here you will create an outline, take notes, and develop your conversation with the author:
I. Write a quick summary of what you believe the reading to be about.
II. Start reading again making notes in each section. Use an outline format and write down section headers to stay organized. It should follow this format:
How to Read a Book – Mortimer J. Adler
Chapter 1 – The Activity and Art of Reading
a. Quick summary of front matter
b. Active reading
c. The Goals of Reading
III. Within each section have a conversation with the author. What is the main point? DO you agree with the author? Why is this section significant?
IV. Write the summary statement of the conclusion.
This section may seem tedious and time-consuming, something online adult learners do not have much of. However, your notetaking and outlining skills will increase in speed with practice.
Shorter articles will not need such detailed outlines, and you may even get to the point where all you need to do is write a one-paragraph summary to understand the article. Each time you partake in this method, you are enhancing your critical thinking skills. You can apply those skills to all areas of your life, not just academics.
Following this method will allow you to critically analyze any type of online reading you come across. Plus, you will be able to quickly review your notes for an essay, quiz or paper.
Happy – and fruitful – reading!
About the Author
Leigh Buehler-Rappold is an Assistant Professor of Retail Management at American Public University. She is also a course consultant, social media specialist and curriculum design team leader. Her academic credentials include a B.A. in history and sociology from Texas A&M University, an MBA in business administration from the University of Phoenix and a master’s degree in American history from American Public University. Leigh is passionate about adult education, equal education rights of deaf/hard-hearing students, and her beagle Jack.
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